Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Book Review 376: Hitler's Empire
If asked to characterize how the Nazis ruled subjugated countries in a word, it would to be tempting to answer “brutally”or “murderously.” But a more acute answer would be “ineptly” or “amateurishly.”
The literature on the subject could not be mastered in 10 lifetimes but Mark Mazower has comprehended an enormous amount of it in at least half a dozen languages. Sometimes he struggles to squeeze it all into just 600 pages of “Hitler’s Empire.” However, it is possible to distill the essence of Nazi rule into a short space.
Yes, it was murderous, immoral and (we hope) foredoomed. But, looked at in a narrowly administrative sense, main themes resolve themselves.
First, while it is sometimes said the the British acquired their empire in a fit of absentmindedness, and while Hitler admired their ability to mange it with so few men (about one to every thousand inhabitants of India, for example), Hitler in a sense acquired an empire he didn’t want.
“Mein Kampf” laid out his dreams of an empire in the east but he never imagined he would occupy western Europe or North Africa. He was neither prepared to rule the empire he got nor did he have enough Germans to do it.
(Though not remarked by Mazower, Bismarck had foreseen the problem; he opposed the bid for an overseas empire — or even a European state encompassing all German speakers — because he did not think he had enough Prussians to staff it.)
The practical flaw in the concept of Lebensraum was that there were not enough Germans to settle the newly acquired lands. Nor did the Germans who did exist want to move east; they had been shifting west, and away from the land to the cities, for generations.
Second, much of the book concerns Himmler’s repeatedly frustrated schemes to remake Poland, Belarus and Ukraine into German-populated marches buffering Greater Germany from the hordes of asiatics. So these places had to be cleared of Jews and Slavs.
It was not at first envisaged that the Jews would be murdered. Up to late 1941, it was planned to shift them somewhere else. However, and in contradiction to this concept, it was expected that eventually the Slavs would be mostly eliminated. Starvation would do that job.
Third, meanwhile, the Germans had to decide how to control most of Europe. With no forethought or guiding notions, they made different arrangements in different countries: the Danes, who cooperated without much fuss, got to keep a parliament and manage most of their affairs; the French were partly under military occupation, partly expected to govern themselves for Germany’s benefit; the Croats were left to their own murderous selves; the Greeks were under a harsh military occupation.
An additional complication was that the Netherlands, France, Belgium and even Denmark had overseas colonies that the Germans needed to keep under the administration of sovereign states in order to keep the British out.
Elsewhere, the Germans exploited local jealousies to gain cooperation: in Slovakia, resentment of Czechs; in Romania and Hungary by allowing them to absorb territory they had historical claims for.
However, this did not work well, because some of these partners were claiming the same territory; or Hitler did not want them to have it; or for military reasons; and, most of all, because it tended to interfere with the racial policies.
Fourth, notoriously, many people, especially in eastern Europe, initially welcomed the German army because of their desire for independence, hatred of the Soviets, or both. But the brutality of German behavior quickly turned these potential collaborators into opponents.
Fifth, economically, the Germans did better, getting the industrial western conquests to convert to production for Germany. A dreamed-of rationalization of Europe’s economy didn’t happen and couldn’t have, but as a source of munitions and food the Reich did well enough out of its conquests.
Sixth, the demographic impasse which Mazower continually returns to bedeviled the Nazis. Early in the war, they achieved their racial dream of evicting non-Germans from Germany; but soon enough need for labor meant they were importing workers from all over, some as volunteers, some as slaves, some as half-slaves. Germany was again acquiring undesirables, even, in some instances, Jews. The total of 7 million was not far from 10 percent of the total of Germans in Germany. And, ironically, about the same as the number of German soldiers killed in the war.
Mazower remarks that for Hitler, economics was a zero-sum struggle, and in that sense going to war proved him right.
(Curiously, despite devoting much space to Germany’s labor stringency, Mazower never mentions the well-known facts that Germany never turned to its women — there was no Heidi the Riveter — nor did it divert the very large number of domestic servants into war work. Despite its radicalism in many ways, Nazism was traditional in its estimation of women; and although some 21st century rightwingers have attempted to define Nazism as a form of socialism, it was thoroughly bourgeois.)
“Hitler’s Empire” is not only an economic review; there is a great deal about politics and, throughout, the thing the 21st century thinks it remembers — the bloodshed. The amount of killing was unprecedented and Mazower never lets up; but there was much more going on than that, and the last two chapters should make liberal readers squirm.
Hitler’s New Order challenged the complacent democracies where they were vulnerable: none of what the Nazis did was unknown in the colonies of Britain, France, Belgium or the Netherlands, and the colonized took it to heart. None of those empires survived much longer than Hitler’s.
Hitler wanted to overturn the Versailles settlement that attempted to protect minorities by creating monoethnic states. Since 1945, the world has agreed with him; states have purged their minorities, creating a permanent refugee and migrant crisis.
If the United States was to some extent a holdout from this kind of nazification, the election of 2016 signaled that America has joined the intolerants.